Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review of Valley of the Bees

The same year Frantisek Vlacil completed his epic production of “Marketa Lazarova” (1967), he also managed to write and direct another medieval drama intended to get some extra mileage out of the sets and costumes. While this film, “Valley of the Bees” (1967), is not nearly as awe-inspiring in scope and intensity, it is more accessible both artistically and physically (Facets has an above-average region 1 release).

Similar to Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece “Chungking Express,” which was made as a fast-and-light refreshment break during the arduous filming of “Ashes of Time,” “Valley of the Bees” is far simpler and more mellow than “Marketa Lazarova” (though still approximately a million times more savage and chilling than, say, “A Knight’s Tale” which incidentally was also filmed in the Czech Republic). One can feel Vlacil’s renewed confidence. There are less characters, no major battles (though the crusades are mentioned) and nearly half the running time, yet the story, themes, structure and style are still deep and mesmerizing. In retrospect, it probably makes sense for those interested in Vlacil to start with this film rather than “Marketa Lazarova.”

[Image: Ondrej as (Top) a child and (Bottom) grown up.]

The picture opens with Ondrej as a child, beekeeping by his father’s minor castle. Upset that his dad is about to marry a young girl, he hides bats under the flower petals of a wedding gift and sends his father into a murderous rage. Nearly dead, Ondrej is promised to god by his guilt-ridden father. This sacred vow consigned Ondrej to knighthood in a holy order by the sea, a life he is less enamored with than his dashing mentor Armin.

After much soul-searching and a brush with insanity, the matured Ondrej escapes, eventually finding his way back to his homeland and the role of patriarch that awaits him. Armin hunts him down, arriving in time to interrupt Ondrej’s blasphemous marriage to his step-mother. In the tragic conclusion, both men must make difficult decisions about love, friendship, faith and honor.

“Valley of the Bees” is essentially a conflict between secular life and religious devotion, but expertly framed as a character drama about divided friends and conceived within the mindset of the middle ages. Contemporary bias and priorities are largely avoided. Ondrej, quite reasonably, desires his freedom, family, territory and chance at happiness. He shows every indication of being a capable ruler, provider and husband, though his actions can be seen as cowardly, not to mention oedipal. Armin is a man of true faith and unswerving duty, but his determination and inability to compromise make him ruthless and oppressive. This difference in personality ultimately pushes their friendship to the breaking point, causing both men to make terrible sacrifices for the sake of their sincere convictions.

[Image: A bloody nighttime skirmish amidst smoldering mounds.]

In keeping with its metaphysical and ideological themes, “Valley of the Bees” has more contemplative tone than “Marketa Lazarova.” The backdrop is still brutal and unforgiving, marked by poverty and abrupt death, but the pace is relaxed and the acting restrained. The fragility of this calm is revealed through the sudden changes that come bursting through the equilibrium and the swift punishments that follow errors in judgment. This is perhaps best appreciated by observing Vlacil’s motif of people getting torn apart by dogs, accounting for a [record-breaking?] 3 out of 4 major deaths in the film.

[Image: Something tells me Frantisek’s father never gave him a puppy.]

The looming danger and fear that mark the dark ages is, however, tempered by two systems that appear to provide a path out of the chaos and misery: the monastic life of extreme discipline and the material consolidation of personal power. There seems to be few bridges between the two extremes and it’s interesting to note that the only sign of the live-and-let-live values now considered progressive is a priest whose moral flexibility makes him one of the least likable characters. Inevitable tragedy manages to demolish any chance of hope and harmony, but the final shots acknowledge the human capacity for endurance and even rebirth.

Artistically, Vlacil continues to impress me with his maverick marshaling of sights and sounds and I’m coming to regard him as one of the great masters of cinema. (I dare say I like his work more than the early films of Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, who are probably better known due to their later success in America.) The composition is up to the level of “Marketa Lazarova,” but it’s colder and more austere. There’s less focus on the influence of nature and more attention on mankind. Even the bees that occupy the title and quite a bit of the soundtrack, serve mostly as a metaphor for the pockets of collective effort that are gradually taming the land.

The mood is maintained less by the forest and marshes than by stoic close-ups and stone structures. Vlacil lighting is extremely precise, effectively using the contrast of light and shadows as inseparable but irreconcilable sparring mates not unlike Ondrej and Armin. In keeping with the natural conditions of the era he leaves night-time scenes and interiors very dark, often taking advantage of thresholds for framing dark figures against rear lighting and light figures against receding blacks.

[Images: Mirrored incidents from the (Top pair) beginning and (Bottom pair) climax of the film where wedding banquets are fatefully interrupted by a lone guest at the door.]

White and black also have important character associations. Armin, for instance, is associated with purity. He has blonde hair, prefers the white cape of the order and rejects the temptation of heterosexual love during a chaste encounter with a blind, fair maiden. Ondrej and his bride have dark hair and dress in thick gray furs that give them an earthy aura in line with their worldly concerns.

[Images: Images of (Top) Ondrej and (Bottom) Armin dominated by their respective poles on the gray scale.]

Ondrej and Armin show a fascination for light, staring into fires, the glittering ocean or the sunlight that cascades through windows. Both describe a fire within, a burning that they can’t quite understand. Armin associates it with the crusades and his spiritual devotion, reflecting his restlessness to redeem his friend. For Ondrej the inner fire drives him to pick up his father’s torch, returning home to restore his community and marry his mother, though it may also represent his guilty conscience.

The lighting enriches compositions that are often relatively minimal, similar to the observant styles of Bresson or even Flaherty. Often Vlacil harnesses the sharp jab potential of individual symbolic props, like a gaunt wooden crucifix, a chalice or a bed. The most frequent and versatile of his repeated images is the cross, a fixation for Armin and an omen for Ondrej.

[Images: Crosses… boy they sure do show up a lot.]

As with “Marketa Lazarova” the music of Zdenek Liska and the sound design are integral parts of the film’s tone. Whether it’s Gregorian chant, children’s choir, swarming bees or grave silence, the soundtrack always has a sense for the monumental; somehow detaching us from the characters and dwarfing them. It reminds us of the beauty and surrealism in what, in the hands of a less skilled director, could have been a mundane and ugly period piece.

[Image: Petals and bats. It kind of encapsulates Vlacil’s brand of beauty.]

I recommend “Valley of the Bees” for anyone even slightly curious about Frantisek Vlacil, but not in the position where they want to commit to Second Run’s Region 2 DVD of “Marketa Lazarova.” It’s the perfect place to start and leaves me optimistic about trying Facets other Vlacil releases, “The White Dove” and “Adelheid,” though I hear those transfers are less impressive.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Temperature Taxonomy for Directors

Today I’m going to propose a loose way of categorizing directors using a temperature metaphor that has already been around in an incomplete form. You might ask if we really need another way of classifying, pigeon-holing and dissecting films especially in an era where ideas like auteurism, genre and nationality have been widely attacked and even language and mode of production are not as clear-cut as they used to be. The answer is no. I’m only doing this because I enjoy lists and taxonomies and find it useful for describing the type of films I love.

So here are the categories: cold, cool, warm and hot. Simple enough. Directors can fall under one or more temperature and they can change throughout their career. The designations consider the directors style, content and goals. Here is a basic outline of what I intend each to mean:

A cold director is concerned with aesthetic and formal possibilities. He is often focused on the superficial exteriors of things and how they directly affect our senses rather than the symbolic or interpretative meanings. Characters are usually unimportant; treated with detachment and little concern for psychological depth or realism. Technical qualities such as color, composition, framing, lighting, staging, set design, movement and editing are more important than story or characters. The primary goal is to achieve beauty, often through experimental methods and non-narrative imagery.

Cool directors are interested, first and foremost, in entertaining. The central preoccupation is story and ample use of action, romance, comedy and suspended disbelief are employed to draw viewers into enjoying themselves. Genre devices and clichés are to be used as hooks to familiarize and accommodate the audience. The main artistic drive is to create the impression of high production values, with most technical aspects treated as distracting nonessentials. Material unrelated to understanding the story or encouraging character identification is removed or made inconspicuous so that the viewing experience is clear and concise. Ambiguity, controversy and challenges (such as difficult moral dilemmas) should be avoided.

A warm director is typically, though not necessarily, a humanist who seeks truth and understanding through the medium of film. Richly realized characters are the most important factor, with stories that may be very simple, personal and/or realistic. Deep themes that encourage further thought and argument after the movie are frequent. Films will often have a message or a specific agenda, though they might also be meditations on difficult multisided topics or unassuming character studies. The pacing is usually slow, with plenty of room for dialogue and contemplation.

Hot filmmakers are keyed to emotions and the visceral experience of watching a film. They want to affect the viewer, drawing them into the heightened emotional states through melodrama and expressionism. The films are often unrealistic and intense with wild originality, creative surrealism and unexplained strangeness used to transcend expectations and conventions. Hot directors may also employ shock, controversy, extremism, fast pacing, chaotic styles and sudden changes in technique to ensure an audience reaction. They want to challenge viewers and shake them out of complacency.

From these description it might be easily seen that in general experimental works fall under cold, studio films for wide release (especially genre films like action and comedy) are cool, critical darlings and prestige pictures tends towards warm and cult films and melodramas are typically hot.

The ancient Greeks and Romans practiced humorism, a medical theory that the body was made up of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These were thought to control both diseases and personalities. My taxonomy is similar in that each director may have a combination of the four principles and in that such theoretical systems are almost entirely bunk.

While many great films are made under each of these categories, people will no doubt tend towards some and away from others. I like this taxonomy because it reveals my somewhat contradictory love for opposite poles: the hot and the cold. I think of the poles as the cinematic frontier, where the new exploration is being done: cold directors by pursuing formal and technical ambitions and hot directors by plumbing the depths of the human heart and psyche. The well-established middle territory of cool and warm is loved by audiences and critics respectively, but I find it less exciting.

With any system such as this there are necessarily limitations. Certainly there are some fuzzy borders between the categories and a lot of subtleties that are being missed. For instance, my love of hot directors doesn’t mesh with my dislike for some extreme cinemas: I’ve never been a fan of shock for its own sake, though I value transgression. My allegiance to cold directors is sometimes tested by minimalist avant-garde directors whose work is hard to engage with. Oh well.

Anyway, let’s get to the fun! I’m now going to start classifying directors by temperature. Feel free to comment with your additions and objections!

Cold: Bernardo Bertolucci, Stan Brakhage, Peter Greenaway, Wojciech Has, Aki Kaurismaki, David Lynch, Guy Madden, Tsai Ming-Liang, Nicholas Roeg, Raoul Ruiz, Lars von Trier, Bela Tarr, Orson Welles

Cool: Michael Bay, Jackie Chan, George Cukor, Cameron Crowe, Walt Disney, Hal Hartley, Howard Hawks, John Hughes, Peter Jackson, John Landis, George Lucas, Sidney Lumet, Brett Ratner, Ridley Scott, Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise

Warm: Kenneth Branagh, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Vittorio de Sica, Milos Forman, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Eric Rohmer, Roberto Rossellini, Francois Traffaut, Agnes Varda

Hot: Abel Ferrara, David Cronenberg, Lucio Fulci, Crispin Glover, Yasuzo Masumura, Takashi Miike, Glauber Rocha, Ken Russell, Andrei Zulawski

Cold/Cool: Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Takashi Kitano, Stanley Kubrick, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Patrice Leconte, Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan, Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Tykwer

Cold/Warm: Theo Angelopoulus, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Atom Egoyan, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Sergei Parajanov, Frantisek Vlacil, Wim Wenders

Cold/Hot: Dario Argento, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, Kim Ki-Duk, Alaine Robbe-Grillet, Shinya Tsukamoto

Cool/Warm: Robert Altman, Charlie Chaplin, Ron Howard, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Stanley Kramer, Akira Kurosawa, Ernst Lubitsch, Mira Nair, Nicholas Ray, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, Zhang Yimou

Cool/Hot: Tex Avery, Stephen Chow, Roger Corman, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Richard Lester, Baz Luhrmann, Sam Raimi, Douglas Sirk, Johnny To, Paul Verhoeven

Warm/Hot: Luis Bunuel, Werner Herzog, Nagisa Oshima, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Peter Watkins

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of The Fall (2006)

Like most cinephiles, I fancy that I have a pretty good network for finding out about the best films. We all have our favorite sources, be they friends, reviewers, websites, blogs, books, movie channels, theaters, film festivals or whatever. With newly released films, its often just as important to learn how to avoid bad advice and obnoxious trailers. Yet sometimes our personal systems fail, something which happened to me recently when an internet popup ad was the unlikely informant for guiding me to the best recent film I’ve seen this year.

I say recent, because Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall” was actually finished in 2006, though it didn’t see a national theatrical release until 2008. Along with the poor distribution it was given, limping marketing and poor reviews have dogged it. I don’t usually write about films while they are still technically in theaters, but I must rise to the defense of “The Fall.” I feel strongly that it is a masterpiece.

Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is the curious child of Hispanic orange-pickers in California (circa 1920), who has landed in a hospital after falling from a tree. There she meets Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a Hollywood stuntman who has recently paralyzed his legs in a fall of his own. Alexandria takes to the man after he enchants her with a whimsical epic that consumes her fertile imagination. Yet Walker’s fantastic tale is woven with his own agenda and to get past each cliffhanger Alexandria must help Walker steal enough morphine to seal his suicide.

While the frame story might seem dark and a little disturbing, it’s infused with warmth and wonder by Untaru, who gives a brilliant performance despite being nine years old and not speaking English (she learned as shooting progressed). What give the film its staggering beauty and – less often mentioned – its depth, is Walker’s tale. In it, six disparate adventures (a slave, a sapper, an Indian, a mystic, a masked bandit and Charles Darwin) seek revenge on the nefarious governor Odious. They must undergo a great deal of travel and tragedy before they can face him.

Tarsem Singh was already known as a visual virtuoso for his music video work and his flawed debut “The Cell” (2000), which may arguably deserve its fast fade into obscurity (I’m personally a bit fond of it), but, if nothing else, showed off a great deal of potential. With “The Fall,” Tarsem has made one of the most lush, sumptuous films ever made. It is even more impressive since it is purportedly made without CG, though post-production color work was clearly done. The film has the feel of a Guillermo del Toro fantasy graced with Sergei Parajanov’s talent for appropriating cultural details and Dario Argento panache for enriched colors and aggressive location scouting.

[Images: That’s Charles Darwin in his ridiculous red, white and red fur coat visible in the first three screenshots.]

The film makes no apologies for its ostentatious presentation; an audacious all-out bid for striking beauty that made many critics uncomfortable. It opens with a black-and-white credit sequence of exquisite slow-motion tracking shots whose meaning will not be clear until later in the film. The shots are in an elegant industrial tableau style not quite in keeping with the rest of the film, yet the dreamlike contrast only helps, making the difference between reality and fantasy into a matter of mood.

There’s another standout sequence later in the film in which a troubled dream is submerged in bizarre imagery combining real actors, stage backdrops and stop-motion surgery. Katie noted (and I second) that both the opening credits and dream sequence, if they were presented as standalone shorts, would be amongst her favorites.

Other mesmerizing moments include a sea journey via swimming elephant, a human map performed as a ritual and a chain of death sequences that combine fable, farce and tragedy. These sequences demonstrate a daring creativity and eclecticism that I can’t resists (Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Juenet come to mind), and they work so well for the film that claims of pretentiousness or inconsistency would be petty.

The cumulative impact of the cinematography, camerawork, set dressing, location finding and costume design is so delirious it feels drunk with color and grandeur. Thus it is perhaps not too surprising that one of the main complaints is that story doesn’t live up to the presentation. I disagree, though with imagery this magnificent I’m not sure I’d care if it were true.

Still, I think the accusations that the film is merely shallow excuses for pretty pictures is little more than a snap reaction blinded by the overwhelming visuals. It’s not an uncommon response, motivated by the gut instinct that excellence in one area is necessarily balanced by a lack elsewhere. Does one often, for instance, see a gorgeous blonde and assume they have a PhD?

I happened to really like Tarsem’s storytelling. The nested tale featuring a child’s imagination where reality and fantasy blur and interchange has been done before in “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Princess Bride,” “The Neverending Story,” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” to name just a few. What Tarsem adds to the tradition is a sense that all stories have an agenda, and not necessarily one as noble as a moral. He reveals how they can manipulate and be manipulated to serve the purposes of the teller (how well modern audiences know the double-edged power of the cliffhanger as we sit through commercials!) and even the listener (at one point Alexandria slips into the story to save her beloved hero).

There’s a certain brazenness today in suggesting that it’s OK for stories to be flexible; that the facts can be changed and previous events edited without invalidating the emotional core and underlying truths. To me, this giddy irreverence for “The Epic” is what deflates any bulges of pretentions. It gives a little room for humor, as when Walker retroactively claims that the masked bandit had his fingers crossed behind his back when he swore a blood oath vendetta over his brother’s corpse.

Tarsem makes it clear that he is not exposing the magnificent heights and exploitative depths of just any brand of storytelling (the novel, for instance), but that he is thinking specifically about cinema. The main character’s former position as a stuntman is, itself, a job that distorts the border between truth and fiction. It addresses the lie we see (that a famous celebrity is performing a death defying feat) and the truth that is hidden (that an underpaid unknown actually executed the act). One can see why Tarsem would choose to minimize the greater lie: that no one did the stunt because computer effects faked it. “The Fall” suggests that the fiction and reality are dependent on each other for their magic.

The film has direct references to film at both the beginning and end, but one of my favorites takes place just as Roy Walker begins to tell his first tale. Alexandria stands against a wall as the morning sunlight enters in through a keyhole, projecting an image of a horse from outside onto the wall. At first, it appears that the shadow is shaping itself to Alexandria’s imagination until the cinema-like mechanisms of the projected light are revealed. Appropriately, Alexanderia inadvertently slips the horse into her visualization of the story, as she will do many times with her whims and misinterpretations. The Indian of the story, for instance, is clearly intended by Walker to be an American Indian (he marries a squaw and lives in a wigwam), but Alexandria always sees him as an East Asian.

Though it isn’t a captivating title for bringing in newcomers, I love the way “The Fall” works on so many levels for both the plot and themes. It is a pair of falls that unite the leads and a third that provides the climax. More interpretive is the idea of the Biblical fall (visually reflected by the idyllic Eden/Apple-esque motif of oranges) and loss of innocence. This is plays out as Alexandria comes to learn of Walker’s real agenda behind telling the story.

This is where I read something into the story which I can relate to deeply: the sudden lurch as one sees the private interests behind the curtain. The turning point of knowing you’ve been manipulated. Wonder and joy, thereafter, can no longer be experienced in their purest form. But “The Fall” offers a solution I truly love. [SPOILERS] In the film’s touching epilogue, Alexandria learns to find a new pleasure in searching out Roy in the cinema: in the falls (yet one final layer of its meaning), fights and climbs of the stunts whose unsung artistry she now understands and treasures. She falls in love with stories again, but this time for the truth of their hidden craft rather than merely the fiction of their outer appearances. [End of SPOILERS]

[Image: This shot is a little hint at an upcoming Film Walrus event.]

So how come critics dismiss this movie so easily? I think a lot of them missed the message I interpreted (hey, I could be reading it wrong), but I don’t think many were bothering to interpret at all. Most saw a film that was big, bold, surreal and shameless and they were unable to reduce it to the pocketbook realism and genre limitations they were used to. Having become so sated on bland mediocrity, this outpouring of flavor and spice turned their stomachs. They came face-to-face with creativity and beauty only to pinch their nose with one hand, turn their thumb down with the other and haughtily declare that they have no use for [sneer] “pretty pictures.”

And so I cast a pox upon them. Not a flesheating disease, but the mindeating one they crave: a plague of visually-stunted overdone mediocrity. I hope these reviewers suffer through endless lugubrious art films by bored auteurs immolating themselves with minimalism. I curse them with cute indie flicks about bridging gender, cultural and generational divides. I call down a hailstorm of clockwork thrillers, raunchy comedies and soulless rom-coms. And I will get my wish, because it is their wish, too; because the Market Forces are listening to the prayers of critics who preach cinematic banality to their flocks.

[Image: Alternatively, I would accept the exile of hateful critics to the labyrinth of despair.]

That said, credit is due to those who have stood against the critical tide. Roger Ebert, one of the few great critics who is powerful enough that he doesn’t feel the need to toe the line, gave the film it’s only major perfect score. Directors Spike Jonze and David Fincher have nobly supported the film. Then, too, audiences who have caught it so far have clearly loved it, if their IMDB support is any indication. Hopefully this niche audience will be justly rewarded, perhaps with no better prize the continued career of Tarsem and other directors who share his audacity and virtuosity.

Walrus Rating: 10.0